- Yep, they're real: Griller throws genuine steaks on the fire for bonus authenticity points.
When it comes to easy targets for theatrical satire, they don't come much fatter than suburbia and its self-satisfied denizens. Making sport of guys in barbecue aprons and their brow-lifted spouses is about as challenging as shooting carp in a Jacuzzi. Still, a tight ensemble production or an incisive performance can turn even the most predictable scenario into a thoroughly involving experience.
Such is the case with Griller, by Eric Bogosian, now being given a stellar turn by the Bang and the Clatter Theatre Company in Akron. Bogosian, an edgy and restlessly inventive wordsmith (he wrote the best title ever for one of his solo shows: Pounding Nails in the Floor With My Forehead), is a master of the extended rant. That particular skill is less evident in this nine-character dark comedy, but it features one role that meanders slowly from eccentric and crotchety to truly horrifying -- making this a suburban nightmare that will get under your skin and stay there.
The host of the proceedings is Gussie, an aging hippie turned travel-agency exec. It's his 50th birthday, it's July 4th, and he's invited his family over to his McMansion for a swim in the pool and a cookout on his new $5,000, intercom-equipped grill. While his spacey wife, Michelle (Susan Speers), trundles in and out with snacks and drinks, daughter Roz -- a former catalog lingerie model -- is busy catching rays and watching her eight-year-old son, Jeremy (Mark Oet). Soon, fortysomething Gloria, an overweight and visibly tragic woman, and her mother, Betty, arrive, sniping at each other from the moment they appear.
It all seems like a fairly standard family gathering of genetically linked mutants -- especially when Gussie's two sons arrive. True to form, son Terrence, Roz's hubby and a successful stockbroker, is disdainful of the lack of a work ethic and loosey-goosey approach to life displayed by his slacker brother, Dylan. For his part, Dylan is there only to pick up the cash he knows his parents will slip him and to shoot up when no one's looking. Each of these characters is sketched with comic precision by the playwright, using crystalline detail and clever phrasing. (To wit, Gloria on her supposedly addled mom: "She pretends to be senile so we won't notice that she really is.")
Even so, it would be only a rather dark sitcom without the looming presence of Uncle Tony, a friend of Gussie's dad, who's been around the clan forever. He starts out as a harmless old curmudgeon, shuffling around the backyard deck with a chilled glass of Grey Goose and boasting about his latest bathroom visit ("Nothing like a nice, easy dump!"). But Tony has a haunted intensity in his eyes, the source of which slowly reveals itself over the two acts. Jim Viront is absolutely compelling in this role; twitching and shrugging as he nails his many laugh lines, he seems like a cross between Cosmo Kramer and Hunter S. Thompson. It's not until later, during a reflection on his military days, that we learn he also has the soul of Freddy Krueger.
The uniformly superior cast is highlighted by Renita Jablonski as Gloria. Hollow-eyed and slouching like a carelessly packed duffel bag, she declares her intention to sell her house, dump her aging mother, and join a whites-only commune in Colorado. Tom Harris is comfortable as an old shoe as Gussie, obsessively dusting imaginary specks off his treasured grilling monstrosity as his family disintegrates around him. Also excellent are Alicia Rodis as the sexually unsatisfied Roz, Tony Weaver and Justin Tatum as blood-feud brothers Terrence and Dylan, and Linda Ryan as the not-so-senile Grandma Betty. Her coda to the evening's events, recalling her early days growing up in the old country, puts a final surprising twist on this intriguing piece.
Director Sean Derry coaxes naturalistic performances out of his players, and, even though some might wish for a slightly brisker pace during a few sequences, the overall effect he creates serves the material beautifully. Doubling as set designer, Derry opts for reality at every turn: The patio furniture is definitely high-end, and the grill is not only real, it's hooked up and cooks meat during the show. Even the offstage pool is actually a pool of water, as various actors can be heard jumping into it and emerging drenched seconds later. To complete the ambiance, the temperature in the theater is kept at a July swelter.
As much fun as it all is, Uncle Tony's horrifying reminiscence about his war experience will put everyone in mind of the tragic episode at Haditha in Iraq and of how purportedly good intentions can easily turn vile and sinister. As for the show being in Akron -- sure, gas is expensive. But this production and the performance by Viront are well worth the trip.